Ladakh is located in the western Himalayas of northern India isolated from the modern world. Majestic snow capped mountains, snow covered roads, clear blue skies, heavenly blue lakes and barren mountains with rivers, Ladakh is thrillingly beautiful!
But it wouldn’t be wrong if we call it as a “Dangerous Beauty” as it’s not only known for its scenic beauty but also for some of the deadliest mountain passes. It lies at an altitude from 8370 feet to 25400 feet. Easily as close to death as one can be, nothing more will kick the adrenaline level like travelling on these 15 dangerous passes of Ladakh.
Marsimik La – 18,314 feet
Marsimik La is the highest drivable road in the world at a height of 18314 feet above the sea level located in the Chang-Chenmo range which connects Leh to the Aksai Chin border with the Chinese occupied Kashmir.
The track was built in 1983. This pass acts as a direct link between the Pangong region and the Kongka pass.
Marsimik is about 20km from the famous Pangong Tso Lake.
Prior permission is required to climb the pass from the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Leh, which is very difficult to get, as the location of the pass is near the India-China line of actual control.
The road to the pass is not in good shape. It’s full of steep stones, loose soil, lots of sharp stones and big rocks. As you near the top of the pass, the road will turn out to be the worst nightmare even for an experienced rider as it’s full of loose sharp stones and large rocks.
So while travelling to this pass prefer four wheeler and motorcycle with a competent driver. Also before starting, get your vehicle properly checked, if it’s prepared and have enough power to do the climb, considering the rough track. If you are planning to visit Marsimik La in winters, then drop the plan as roads are closed during that season.
Photi La – 18124 feet
In south-eastern Ladakh, Photi La is a high mountain pass at an elevation of 18124 feet. The pass is in the Zanskar range of Ladakh.
Photi La is a much lesser-known name in the famous list of high-altitude passes. Photi La is 30 kms from Hanle village ( where the beautiful Hanla Monastery is located) on the Hanle-Photi road that is present in the Changthang region of Ladakh further away from Tso Moriri lake.
One needs to take the Army’s permission before going to take this trail. The road is mostly unpaved and is dusty and you won’t find any soul around due to less oxygen. The road is very steep and wet conditions may pose more problems along with the muddy road.
The trail is a dirt track with last kilometers being a very steep climb. Near the pass oxygen supply is less due to which many people experience altitude sickness, so need to be very careful and take all precautionary measures.
Before you go anywhere near the pass you will see a signboard which says the ILP permit zone ends and if you go past that zone, you may be arrested by the Indian army. The pass is mostly closed in winters.
Kaksang La – 17834 feet
Kaksang La is a high mountain pass at an elevation of 17834 feet above the sea level with beautiful lakes, mountains and valleys.
It’s located in Changthang region of Ladakh. This pass is not as famous as other mountain passes. The road to the summit runs north-south connecting the small villages of Chushul and Mahe that is why this road is also known as Chushul-Mahe road.
Before Mahe, you will cross another pass of Hora La near Tso Moriri Lake. On this route, there are two beautiful lakes – Yaye Tso lake and Mirpal Tso lake.
Protected Area Pass or Inner Line Permits are required to climb the pass. For Indians, there are chances to get these permits, but for foreign nationals it’s quite tough. But having permission doesn’t guarantee you entry as it is upto Indian Army, they can send you back from the checkpost only, if they feel that it is dangerous for the civilians to go ahead.
One shouldn’t travel this road in severe weather conditions, as there are high chances of landslides, avalanches and heavy snowfall. Kaksang La weather can be extremely cold and icy wind hitting the body makes the condition even worse.
The climb is awful. It’s a 75 km long isolated road which is rarely used and is full of sharp turns and dangerous cliffs. So one should prefer a four wheeler and drive carefully. As you near the pass the oxygen supply is low and many people experience altitude sickness.
Chang La – 17590 feet
At an elevation of 17590 feet above the sea level, Chang La is one of the hotspots of travel among all the adventure enthusiasts. Chang La Pass opens up to Changthang Plateau situated in the Himalayas.
You can approach Chang La Pass from Leh via Kharu and Sakti village. The pass is on the route to Pangong Lake.
The natives claim that the pass was named after the temple which is dedicated to Sadhu Changla Baba at Chang La Pass.
For visiting Chang La pass you’ll need an Inner Line Permit which is easily available from the Divisional Commissioner’s office in Leh. All you need is an identity proof like Aadhar card, Voter ID or Driving License. But the permit is issued only for three weeks.
No doubt, Chang La pass is beautiful and alluring but driving through this pass is no cake walk, as one needs excellent driving skills to cross the road which is mostly paved, with some gravel sections. Driving up to the pass will take you through sheer rock faces on one side and a deep cliff on the other side.
The pass is 15 km long and the road is absolutely steep. When the snow on the upper mountains begins to melt, the road to pass is flooded with small streams making it difficult for the bike riders.
As you reach the top of the Chang La pass, it opens a wide vista of snow capped mountains. The air thins at the top, so you might experience headache, nausea or breathlessness.
So carry medicines to deal with altitude sickness and other problems as a precautionary measure. It is also advisable to stay at the stay at the top for not more than 15 to 20 minutes.
Chang La pass is maintained by Indian army, due to border disputes with China. The best time to visit Chang La is from May to October, but the most pleasant months are May and June.
Some of the places to see around Chang La pass are:
Chang La pass is also home to the highest research station in the world and is mentioned in the Limca Book of World Records for the same. It is run by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) India.
Taglang La – 17480 feet
Located in the Zanskar range, at the northernmost tip of India, Taglang La is a high altitude mountain pass at an elevation of 17480 feet. Taglang La can be reached via 21 Gata toop and is situated adjacent to the Leh-Manali Highway.
Taglang La is a captivating place with amazing backdrops and beautiful landscapes. Scenic views make the journey wonderful. Beside the flawless beauty, the pass also provides for an intrepid streak at various rough and sharp terrains.
The pass is full of rocky mountains that gradually turn into layers of white glistening snow. This pass is everything which nature enthusiasts and adventurers crave for.
Leh-Manali Highway road curves like a snake. Crossing 21 Gala loops is more risky due to hairpin bends that appear at small intervals.
Some parts on the road are wet and slippery making the ride even more difficult. Although the road is paved but from 5000m upwards it’s an unpaved stretch of dirt. The pass consists of 20 kms of loose stone road. For experienced riders, this pass is an exciting challenge but for beginners it will turn out to be a nightmare.
If you are scared of heights, you should stay away from the driveway. Near the pass oxygen supply is half of that at the sea level, so people might experience altitude sickness. April and May are the best months for visiting Taglang La pass as days are warm and roads are in good condition. Besides the spectacular view of the pass, other destinations to visit are –
Khardung La – 17582 feet
Khardung La is the most famed mountain pass and is extremely popular among adventure seekers and tourists. Khardung La pass is at an elevation of 17582 feet above the sea level with most enchanting and unexplored landscape. It was built in 1976 and was made available to public motor vehicles in 1988.
The pass is of great strategic importance since it is used to carry important materials to Siachen Glacier by Indian army.
Khardung La acts as the gateway to Shyok and Nubra valley. It is at a distance of 39.7 km (app) from Leh. While travelling from Leh after 45 minutes you will first reach South Pullu and from South Pullu, Khardung La is 11 km.
Since the pass is quite famous among tourists, entry and exit timings are restricted in order to run the traffic smoothly. Vehicles coming from Leh are allowed from 9am to 1pm and exit timings from Khardung La to Leh are from 1pm to 5 pm.
An Inner Line Permit (ILP) is required to access the pass which is acquired at the District Commissioner’s office in Leh. The ILP is valid for 3 weeks for Indians. Foreigners are required to obtain a Ladakh Protected Area Permit before visiting the region and the permit is valid for a period of one year.
It is advisable to keep around 6 copies of ILP with you as they will be required at the checkpoints en-route.
The road to Khardung La pass is usually jammed because of the small landslides and road repairs. The road to the pass is completely maintained by Indian army. The ride till South pullu checkpoint is smooth, there might be a few hindrances, but the road is well maintained.
Road from South Pullu to North Pullu is uneven, consisting of dirt, loose rocks and streams appearing due to melting snow. Thick clumps of snow are usually found from Khardung La pass to North Pullu.
It is advisable not to spend more than 15-20 minutes at the top due to extremely low oxygen and air pressure level as it can cause altitude sickness and breathing problems.
It is suggested to carry a few important items such as medical kit, batteries, fuel, food packages, raincoats, portable oxygen cylinder, lots of water etc to the pass. Best time to visit Khardung La pass is mainly in the months between March- May and September-October. You can also visit The Namgyal Tsemo Gompa while going to Khardung La pass.
Wari La – 17427 feet
Situated at an altitude of 17427 feet, Wari La is a high mountain pass located in Nubra valley, to the north-east of Ladakh. Earlier Wari La was among one of the most unexplored passes but now, it is getting a little attention.
This pass is totally different and amongst the most difficult ones. This pass is not only scenic and thrilling but also remote with almost zero traffic. This road has less presence of Border Roads Organization (BRO) and limited cleaning of snow, unlike Khardung La and Chang La pass.
To reach the pass, after crossing Khalsar village, you need to take the road towards Agam village, leaving the upper route going towards Khardung La. Once you reach Agam, there will be two roads, the road toward left would take you to Shylok village and the road towards right is the one that would take you to Wari La. To attempt Wari La, you don’t need an ILP or any other permit.
The climb to the top is simply terrible. The road is very steep and the surface is really bad. Roads are not really developed and also add to that the fact that there are several water crossings. This route is used by locals at their own risk.
Wet conditions may make the drive tough along the muddy road. Avalanches, heavy snowfalls and landslides can occur anytime and block the road. Frequent patches of ice on the road make the condition even worse. There are a couple of tricky stretches with a little steep gradient and rough roads, in the last few kms to Wari La.
Signboard and prayer flags mark the pass. Oxygen supply is low near the pass and most of the people experience altitude sickness. It is suggested not to stay at the top for long. The downhill road is a good asphalt, with some really bad miles.
There is no village after Khalsar until Sakti, after crossing Wari La where you can get food, water, fuelor mechanics. So one needs to keep that in mind and carry all the necessities along. Also you may not get any signals on your phone. You need to be confident of your driving skills before you make any plan for Wari La.
It is one of the passes that receives snow almost the entire year due to which it opens very late and closes very soon. It usually opens towards mid or end of July and closes in late September or early October. If you are a fan of raw beauty then you should definitely visit Wari La.
Shingo La – 16500 feet
Shingo La also known as Shinku La is located on the border between Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh. The pass is at an elevation of 16500 feet above the sea level. With snow on the pass all year round, the pass is absolutely gorgeous.
Although in the summer only a small stretch of area is covered with snow. As snow falls all the year, the climate of the Singo La pass is extremely cold.
The pass is on a long distance trail connecting two villages Zankar and Lahaul. The nearest village to Zankar is Kurgiakh and to Lahaul is Chikka.
The villages involve two days trekking from the pass. The pass is considered as a starting point to Lugank valley in Zanskar. The base camps for crossing the pass are set at Ramjak or Chumik Nakpo from Parcha and Lakong from Padum. There is a shallow lake just 20 kms below the pass.
A basic road to Shingo La was first constructed in 2016 and was extended to Lakong above the Kurgiakh-Chu in 2017 and a very rough extension to Kurugiakh village was made in 2018. But the road from Lakong to Kurgiakh is still rooted within the water of Kurgiakh-Chu river.
The climb to the top is extremely dangerous. Avalanches, landslides, heavy snowfall and snow storms can occur anytime. And to top it all roads are not properly constructed. Past Zanskar Sumdo, the first tarmac disappears, then the dusty trail turns into loose rocksand then into boulders that one has to climb over. Hairpin bends makes the climb even terrible.
Near the top wind is gale level strong, the air thins and oxygen supply is low. As you reach the top the view is breath-taking. Rock cairns and prayer flags mark the pass. The pass is snow laden and view is unparalleled, to the north lies the Zansker mountains while to the south, the Lahaul range appears with sudden impact.
It’s impossible for a person to spend too long at the top due to climatic conditions and low oxygen level as it can cause altitude sickness and even frost biting.The road to the pass remains open from June to October and closed for the rest of the year for civilian traffic due to heavy snowfall.
Lungalacha La – 16600 feet
Apart from the famous passes of Khardung La and Chang La, there are numerous other passes which are equally or even more beautiful, Lungalacha La is one of them. The pass is also known as Lachung La, Lachulung La etc.
The elevation of Lungalacha La pass is 16600 feet above the sea level which is thrillingly exciting for any adventurer. This pass is located on the border of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & kashmir.
The pass separates the valleys of Tsarap Chu and Tozay. It is located 54 kms from Sarchu and 24 kms from Pang on the Leh-Manali highway.
The pass is relatively less dangerous than other passes. The road to the pass is full of chuckholes, loose rocks,dust and uneven surface. But the main challenge is it’s geographic status, the height and the remote villages it goes through.
Due to lack of greenery in the region, the visitors face breathlessness during the climb and those who have not undergone habituation may face severe symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).
The visuals from the top are really soothing.
It is advisable not to spend much time at the top and keep hydrated to maintain body condition with respect to the climate. The descent is smooth and easy. If you are planning to visit this pass then the best time is from May.
Baralacha La – 16040 feet
The Baralacha La, also known as the Baralacha Pass, is situated in the Zanskar range. It is a high mountain pass at an elevation of 16040 feet above sea level. Baralacha La is a high plateau where three different mountain ranges meet – Pir Panjal, Zanskar and the Great Himalayas.
The pass is located along the Leh-Manali highway that connects Leh district in Ladakh and Lahaul district in Himachal Pradesh. The distance between Manali and the Baralacha la is 190.4 km and it takes approximately 6 hours to reach the pass.
Whereas, the distance between Leh and Baralacha La is 281.8 km and it takes approximately 7 hours and 30 minutes to cover this distance. The pass is around 73 kms away from Keylong on Leh-Manali highway.
The pass forms a natural divide between Bhaga and Yanam river. The Bhaga river originates from the Suraj Tal, just a few kilometers from Baralacha La. The Chandra river meets the Bhaga river at Tandi to form the Chandrabhaga river in Himachal Pradesh and as it enters J&K it is renamed as Chenab river. The Chandra river originates from the glacier close to Chandra Taal lake in the Spiti district.
Baralacha La is the starting point of many treks. The people who visit this pass also love to enjoy the trek from Baralacha up to the Chandratal, which is situated on the banks of the Chandra Taal river in the Spiti valley. The pass is also the commencement point of the famous trek – Suraj Tal trek.
To visit Baralacha La, Indian travellers need to show their identity proof and proof of nationality such as passport, voter ID card or aadhar card and attested photocopies of the same. Foreign travellers need to carry their passport and visa.
The road to the summit is in a little better condition during the summer rather than winters. When the snow melts, the road is open for travel. Generally it is advised to cross the pass before noon because, during the noon, the snow starts to melt, which makes many water streams. And it becomes difficult to cross these streams.
In case, current are strong, it is advisable that one must return to Jispa. The high altitude steep road, sharp turns and gloomy weather makes the route quite difficult.
As you move towards the pass, you come across the cool blue waters of Suraj Taj. as you cross Suraj Taj, and reach the pass, snow capped mountains come in view. Chilly winds blow in the high altitude region making the place extremely cold. So it is advised to habituate yourself properly to avoid altitude sickness and carry enough water and medical kit. Also, no eateries are available at the pass, so one should be well prepared.
The best time to visit Baralacha La and enjoy the view is from April- October. Baralacha La is a hidden gem, must be included in every traveller Must-See-and-Experience list.
Nakee La – 15,547 feet
At an elevation of 15,547 feet, Nakee La is a high mountain pass in Ladakh region. Nakee La is the pass that is towards Whiskey Nallah where Border Roads Organization (BRO) camp is present. The pass is located on Leh-Manali highway.
When you travel from Manali to Leh, you would come across this pass. Also Nakee La comes on the way to Tanglang La pass from Manali. Nakee La pass is between Sarchu and Pang.
During the travel from Manali to Leh, this is the third pass among the five passes that need to be crossed.
The road condition of this pass is just pathetic. Even the most experienced drivers find it difficult to cross the uneven, rugged and off-road path. Frequent sections of ice are another hindrance during the journey.
Avalanches, snowfall and landslides can occur anytime taking the journey to another level of danger. As if that was not enough, the famous “21 Gata Loops” makes the situation even more worse. One has to overcome the 23 km ascent conquering the 21 tricky hairpin bends (21 Gata Loops).
The weather there is highly unpredictable and it doesn’t take time for bright sun shine to change over to snowfall. The climate is very dry and the harsh cold conditions are too much for a person to handle. After Nakee La, the land is very dry with no stream or river.
Best time to visit Nakee La is during the summer since there would be heavy snowfall and landslides during the winters.
Pensi La – 14,426 feet
Pensi La is a mountain pass at an elevation of 14,436 feet above the sea level in the Ladakh region. Pensi La is also known as Penzi La. Pensi La connects Suru valley to Zanskar valley. The pass is at a distance of about 25 kms from Rangdum Monastery.
Pensi La is the gateway to Zanskar and Pudum. Pudum is the headquarters of Zanskar sub-division of Kargil district. A 240 km road connects Kargil town to Pudum.
To the east of Pensi La is the Stod or Doda river which flows into the Pudum valley and joins with Tsarap Chu to form Zanskar river and to the west is Suru river which is tributary of Indus which meets at Kargil.
The pass is traversed by metalled road. The journey can be dangerous and risky as heavy snowfall and landslide can cause road blockage. The road is full of hairpin bends, which can be cut across on foot, to the river below. Wild rhubarb can be seen growing on the slopes.
The descent from Pensi La into the Stod valley in Zanskar is steeper than the climb up from Rangdum Monastery. The grass at the foot of Pensi La furnishes a good camping spot.
The summit provides a spectacular view of Glacial lake, the Drang Drung Glacier and Suru river valley.
At the top, the only peak which can be seen is 23005 feet high while the mountain to the north is 22,549 feet. It is advised to take necessary precautions before the summit. One can visit Pensi La from May-October as the pass remains open during that period only.
Fotu La – 13,479 feet
Fotu La also known as Fatu La is at an elevation of 13,479 feet above the sea level. The pass lies on Srinagar Leh highway in the Zanskar range. The pass is on the way from Heniskot towards Lamayuru.
This mountain pass is considered as the highest point on the highway surpassing the well known pass Zoji La. Fotu La is one of the two high mountain passes between Leh and Kargil along with Namika La.
The road is built with a thick layer of tarmac. The drive to the pass is beautiful as one can stop to get a gorgeous view of snow-capped mountains. The pass is daring as one needs to cross hairpins and sharp curves. Along the way, one has to deal with dangerous drop offs.
On the pass is the relay station of Prasar Bharati that serves Lamayuru.
There are nice bends on descent from the pass. After one crosses Foty La and moves towards the east, the highway starts to slide down towards the town of Lamayuru. While travelling on the Kargil-Leh route, you’ll cross Fotu La to get to Lamayuru.
Zoji La – 12,400 feet
The Zoji La pass is situated at an altitude of 12,400 feet on the Srinagar-Leh highway.
It is located in Kargil district. Zoji La is on the way from Baltal and Matayen. The road is about 25.8 kms long. Located in Drass, the pass connects the Kashmir valley to it’s west with Drass and Suru valley to its northeast and the Indus valley further east.
Zoji La is about 100 km from Srinagar and 15 km from Sonmarg. The pass links amid Leh in western Himalayan mountain ranges and Srinagar and provides an important link between Ladakh and Kashmir. Zoji La is the second highest pass on Srinagar-Leh highway after Fotu La.
The road to the summit is unpaved. The drive is not at all easy. Driving through the pass in winters means driving between thick walls of ice on both sides. During and after the storms the road may be blocked.
If it rains, the road becomes muddy making it challenging to pass through. If you look at the sharp mountain edges to find the road, you’ll see only a thin line. That’s the road. Conquering the pass requires excellent driving skills, lots of patience and a reliable set of wheels.
The pass remains closed during winters because of heavy snowfall, cutting off Ladakh region from Kashmir. Thus in 2018, the Government of India approved the Zoji La tunnel project. It is a 14.2 km long tunnel which will reduce the time to cross the pass from more than 3 hours to just 15 minutes.
As of now, the pass opens in the spring season. The Beacon Force Unit of the BRO is responsible for cleaning and maintaining the road during winter. It takes 2 months to clean the National Highway in the Zoji La area. On certain occasions, the unit completes their job before time, due to which the highway opens earlier than expected.
Namika La – 12,198 feet
Located in Zanskar range of Himalayas, Namika La is a high mountain pass at an altitude of 12,198 feet above the sea level. The pass is along the Srinagar-Leh highway. The pass is one of the three highest passes on the Leh-Srinagar highway.
Also it is one of the two high passes between Kargil and Leh. Namika La has its own importance among all the major mountain passes in Ladakh and is also known as “Pillar of the Sky Pass”.
The road to the summit is made of thick layer tarmac. The road is not easy, as it is full of twists and turns, left and right, up and down all the time which poses a great difficulty to the drivers. Also after the sunset, the visibility is very poor. Due to high altitude, the road is subject to strong winds and drastic weather changes.
The area near the pass is completely barren and there is no greenery or light, also the climate is very harsh. The pass is completely deserted and is marked with lots of prayer flags. The pass offers amazing views of Maitreya Buddha and the Monastery beneath it.
After crossing the pass, visitors experience totally different views of the lush green surroundings and snow-covered peaks. Namika La is a must visit, the last pass before entering the Kargil region.
Trip to these 15 high mountain passes of Leh Ladakh is once in a lifetime. If you’re looking to challenge yourself by breaking out of your comfort zone then go ahead. This trip will definitely be a treasure house of memories for you that you’ll cherish all throughout this life. Such is the beauty and harmony offered by this experience.
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